Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Saturday 14th to Wednesday 18th October
We needed to be in Bangkok, Thailand, for Hannah to catch her flight back to the UK, but we still had more than a week to kill before she left. Unsure of what else to do, we opted for a few days in Otres Village, just outside Sihanoukville, so we could work out what to do next.
We were staying at The Palm Boutique for £15 a night, right in the middle of the village; the village being just a five minute walk to the beach. Sihanoukville sells itself on its nightlife, and its beaches, but really we weren’t taking great advantage of either.
Hannah frolics in the surf with the locals on a largely empty Otres Beach
Largely, this is because we were still in the low season. Tourism here only picks up from November when the weather is more reliable. What we were presented with was a whole beachfront of empty bars and bungalows. Some completely shuttered and tarpaulin-ed off, to stave off the worst of the storms. While we did enjoy a simple lunch at a couple, and took advantage of the sun loungers of one, we’d been spoiled a little by the paradise beaches of Koh Ron Sanloem the previous week!
We happened to be staying just around the corner from The Otres Steakhouse, and with steaks less than half the price of what they would have been in the UK it would have been churlish not to. Twice!
Other than the ghost-town low season feel of the village, what struck us most was the awful litter everywhere. Sadly, it seems that the stretch of countryside between Sihanoukville and Otres Village is the local fly-tipping hotspot.
Waste disposal is a significant problem in Cambodia. For the most part, it seems, getting rid of rubbish is up to the individual; it is either burned, or simply cast out into the street or tipped in the countryside.
Poverty and litter so often go hand in hand – we passed this shanty village on the way to Otres
On the train from Phnom Penh, the carriage attendant simply emptied the bins out of the train door – far from being unusual, it seems this is very much the norm.
In Phnom Penh, 40% of residents have no access to waste collection, and of those that do fewer than 50% use it. Even the company responsible said in 2015 that it simply couldn’t handle the amount of rubbish being produced.
We felt lucky that we had been able to see the village and the beach so empty. Judging by the scores of party bars and hostels we figured that it wouldn’t have really been our scene had we come a month later. Besides, we can handle a bit of rain.
The street outside the Palm Boutique – the cables had been like that for the past three months!
We had yet to choose how we were going to get to Bangkok: direct by a 12+ hour bus, or via Phnom Penh or Siam Reap, splitting the journey. Thankfully we ended up chatting to the a frenchman working at the hotel, Erawan, who gave us some advice:
“Go to Koh Chang; stay at the Grand Tree Hotel; and go say hello to my friend, James, who owns the Crocodile Café.”
We’d never even heard of Koh Chang, but we looked at the map and found a Thai island, close to the Cambodian border, that we could reach by bus and ferry in just a few hours. Oh, and the whole island was a national park. Perfect!
Koh Chang, Thailand – Wednesday 18th to Monday 23rd October
Crossing the Cambodian/Thai border was easy; and just a couple of hours in to Thailand we were at the ferry for Koh Chang. The approach to the island is beautiful. By law, there are no buildings on the island taller than a coconut tree. Consequently, from the sea, the island appears wild and almost uninhabited.
The other, perhaps more important, result of this law, is that there are no big resort developments on the island.
Sunset approach to Koh Chang, Thailand
For our first couple of nights we did indeed stay at the Grand Tree Resort; bagging a ‘bungalow’ for £11 a night. We also met James and his wife Ai at the Crocodile Café, and had a great couple of nights hanging out with ex-pats. James even met us one morning for a little scooter tour of the area!
One incredible little spot he took us to was the Khlong Phlu waterfall, where we dropped in the next day for a morning swim. This was home to lots of tiny fish that nibbled on your toes! Hannah was not impressed.
Messing about at Khlong Phlu waterfall – naturally, Phil spent much of his time at the bottom of the pool
There was a really strong community feel on the island. And it was great to hear old-sailor tales and stories from across the globe from an established group of decidedly non-backpackers. Eating dinner at Max’s with Max, and then the following morning again with James and Ai, we started to get a real appreciation of how these guys had come to live there.
James and Ai joining us for breakfast at Max’s
We decided, to explore the island more, and to cut our booking at Grand Tree short, and head south to the village of Lonely Beach.
Post-sunset at Lonely Beach
While still off-season quiet, Lonely Beach was definitely an upgrade in terms of services and facilities. Hannah managed to find us a beautiful quiet little villa right in the middle of town, but far from the road so we could enjoy almost total silence. It was bliss! Our villa at Kachapura set us back just £13.75 a night (including breakfast). Koh Chang is certainly good value for money!
Kachapura villas in the evening sun
Phil wanted to go snorkelling, so we popped into BB Divers to see what they might offer. Forty-five minutes and £200 later we left with Phil booked onto a two day PADI Freediver course! Seems like a lot of money just to learn to hold your breath, but the cheapest I could find online in the UK was over £300, and in some parts of the world heading up to well over £1000!
No troubles, only bubbles, with BB Divers
Yet another brilliant thing about travelling off season, and going a little off the beaten track, is that there aren’t always millions of people vying to do the same thing. Consequently, for the following two days Phil received truly expert one-on-one tuition from Marc Roderiguez; one of the few PADI Master Freediver Instructors in Asia, and soon to be one of only a handful of PADI Freediver Instructor Trainers in the world! It’s kind of like learning to play tennis with the Williams Sisters’ mum!
The remarkable Marc, Phil’s freediving instructor
Diving to 15m metres while holding your breath is an amazing experience, and wreck-diving without a scuba tank truly spectacular. The visibility wasn’t great, at less than 10m; but this improves to 30m or more through November. However, the world-class tutelage more than made up for it!
On our last night we decided to head south to Rasta View, which we had been assured by a number of people was an amazing place to watch the sun go down. However, because Phil had returned later than expected from his Freediving, the sun set as we were in the back of the taxi. Then on arrival, we realised that it really wasn’t our kind of place at all. Not to be deterred, we enjoyed the view as twilight turned to night and decided to head back to Lonely beach for dinner; 4km away over dark, twisting, hilly roads. Problem: no taxis!
The taxis on Koh Chang are basically pickup trucks that run back and forth along the island, collecting and dropping off as they go. The problem we faced was that Rasta View was right at the Southern tip of the island. Beyond the last village! After a half an hour wait we decided to set off on our own; but the steep hills were no good for Hannah’s back or Phil’s dodgy knees. Two kilometers in we were both feeling a bit flustered, and thankfully (finally) a taxi came by heading back to Lonely Beach. I’m not sure we would have got much further with our bodies, or tempers, intact!
Bangkok, Thailand – Monday 23rd to Tuesday 24th October
And so we left the island on the bus to Bangkok. With only a day together before Hannah headed back to the UK for a month, we decided to hide in the air-con world of the MBK Mall, and go on a teenagers’ date to the movies. And a great date it was too.
Next week will be in a few weeks’ time, when Hannah returns to Thailand.
Hannah and Phil x